President Clinton publicly thanked his wife, daughter and others yesterday for the "unmerited forgiveness" he feels he has received after his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, and he asked for prayers as he continues the "not always comfortable" process of meeting with religious counselors.
One year after a damp-eyed Clinton confessed "I have sinned," he used the same annual prayer breakfast setting to update the nation on his spiritual journey back from a scandal that once threatened his presidency.
"Last year was one of the most difficult years in my life," Clinton told religious leaders and others, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the White House. "I have been profoundly moved, as few people have, by the pure power of grace, unmerited forgiveness through grace." He said he was grateful "most of all to my wife and daughter, but to the people I work with, to the legions of American people and to the God in whom I believe."
Clinton also thanked three clergy members "who have kept their word to meet with me over the last year, both to help me and to hold me accountable. And I have kept my word to meet with them and to work with them. . . . It is interesting and not always comfortable, but always rewarding. And I hope you will pray for us as we do."
The president's brief comments--which preceded a much longer speech about youth violence--marked a rare voluntary revisiting of the sex-and-perjury scandal that dominated 1998 and still rattles the nation's political landscape. Linda R. Tripp, Lewinsky's onetime friend whose secret tape recordings triggered the investigation, this week filed a lawsuit accusing the White House of defaming her. And pollsters say one reason Vice President Gore is struggling in his presidential bid is that many voters are weary of the scandal-tinged administration.
One year ago, on the day his lawyers would release his defense against the perjury case being assembled by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, Clinton made his most detailed and gripping acknowledgment of wrongdoing with Lewinsky, the White House intern who performed oral sex on him in his office.
"I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned," he told the assembled ministers that morning. "If my repentance is genuine and sustained, and if I can maintain both a broken spirit and a strong heart, then good can come of this for our country as well as for me and my family."
Many of the same clergy leaders were back at the White House yesterday, and Clinton felt he couldn't ignore last year's emotional scene, aides said. "He thought it would be weird not to bring it up," said one top adviser.
"This occasion, because it has come to mean so much to me, was a very difficult one," the president said yesterday. "And for those of you who were part of that, I want to express my particular appreciation." Many in the audience applauded.
White House aides were careful yesterday not to amplify the issue.
At this daily briefing, presidential press secretary Joe Lockhart interrupted the first question about why Clinton felt his forgiveness was "unmerited."
"Let me preempt that and many other questions by saying I have no further insight to what he said," Lockhart said. "I'll leave you to interpret it."
Clinton's meetings with spiritual counselors are a closely held matter, of which even high-ranking aides profess little knowledge.
Lockhart, asked how often the president meets with the ministers, replied: "I know from what he said today that he continues to meet with them, but I don't know how often."
The Rev. Philip Wogaman, one of the pastors counseling Clinton, told Reuters after the breakfast, "In the course of our meetings, we've been able to deal with a number of things in depth. . . . We're dealing with an area of his life that was flawed and he certainly understood that."
Wogaman, the senior minister at the Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, said, "I don't for one moment think that what he's been doing has been simply for the public relations effect."